Abiding by “The Rules of the Tunnel”

For the past month and a half, I’ve suffered from what I call “unmanageable depression and anxiety.” Trust me, there’s a big difference between manageable and unmanageable. Manageable is what I’ve lived with for years. Unmanageable is a different animal altogether.

For instance, it’s hard to explain why the thought of vacuuming the living room makes me cry or why I can’t find the mental constitution to shower or put on makeup every day. It’s hard to explain why I don’t want to eat or why leaving the house is akin to climbing Everest. Yet, in times like these, the synchronicity of literature can sometimes be astounding. Or maybe it’s just God putting a certain book in my hands at a certain, specific time.

The book to which I refer is The Rules of the Tunnel: My Brief Period of Madness by Ned Zeman. Zeman was a successful editor for Vanity Fair when his descent began. He became fascinated with offbeat men who suffered strange deaths, most notably Grizzly Man Tim Treadwell. Soon, this fascination turned into anxiety and depression, therapist after therapist, medication after medication.

An excerpt: “Everything, at this point, was an anvil on top of a piano. Utility bills sat on the kitchen table for weeks, unpaid. Not because of money concerns. Because who had the strength to find postage stamps? Meals went uneaten; suits, baggy; calls, unreturned. … By month six, your hands were trembling round the clock. The subway was a potential powder keg—The Taking of Brooklyn One Two Three. You kept up appearances as best you could—you were gifted that way. … You wanted out. Needed it.” This, in so many words, is depression.

Zeman’s journey is long and arduous, but his writing is not. He is possibly the first writer I’ve come across to successfully write an entire book in second person: you this and you that. The perspective made it all the more personal, as if you, the reader, were along for Zeman’s horrific ride through the dark, lonely tunnel of mood disorder, followed by electroconvulsive treatment (yes, shock treatment) and the ensuing amnesia—often a side effect of ECT.

Zeman is at times tragic, at times hilarious, and at times completely inappropriate. The book is not a downer; it is a first-hand, honest, self-deprecating account of a topic most of us would rather not discuss.

Author Ned Zeman.

As someone whose own depression/anxiety is, every four or five years, completely unmanageable, it was comforting to read the descriptions of Zeman’s own torment. It made me feel less alone, and although he may not be technically “healed” by the end (are we ever?), he at least knows how to be better. Perhaps what further aligned me to his plight was the writer thing. As he points out, “Chipper, well-adjusted people don’t write ‘The Raven,’ To the Lighthouse or Heart of Darkness. … Writers, creatives, were different from everyone else.” I’m aware of this (as are thankfully my friends, family, and husband), and I embrace the difference. Would I be an artist without my depression? Am I an artist because of my depression? Does my depression stem from my art? Too many questions, all of them unanswerable and frankly inconsequential.

I related heavily to Zeman and the characters in his book, including an overdose victim named Michael who used to disappear from parties for a couple minutes, only to return and explain, “Sorry. I was in my car. I needed a place to scream.” I related to David Foster Wallace, who Zeman quotes as writing, “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”

Yet as I said, The Rules of the Tunnel is not a downer book. It is a book of terror, of treatment, and of eventual self-realization. By the end, Zeman has learned the rules of his mood disorder. He has learned how to utilize treatment and loved ones in constructive, healthy ways. Some of his best advice: “Call someone, anyone. Some fifty-five million Americans have a mood disorder, and every one of them feels a little less alone when they meet a fellow traveler.”

For the duration of 308 pages, I was Zeman’s fellow traveler, and I traveled with him down his path at a time when I needed him most. Depression and anxiety are things we live with. Some days are better than others. Some years, the same. It’s a disorder that may never go away, but like Zeman, I hold hope that unmanageable can become manageable. Life is a trip through the tunnel. Sometimes the lights go off, but The Rules of the Tunnel reminded me that eventually, they are bound to come back on.

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